The Backdated Romance (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Issue #47)

I knew all of your quirks, David said much later, long after the initial panic had passed. I knew you ate peanut butter out of the jar when you were depressed. I knew you used organic cleaning fluid because Windex gave you hives. I knew you drifted off to sleep at night with a satisfied little smile that made me wonder what you were thinking. I knew your toes twitched when you came .

The only thing I didn’t know, he added, was how you would react when I met you.

There are days I wish he’d never contacted me at all, of course… but I’m trying real hard to unring that bell.

#

While David Crofton and I theoretically were both members of Chicago’s sprawling hacker community, in practice we’d barely talked. I knew him as a lanky, affable man who continually ran his hands through a receding Jewfro – cute enough for me to remember him, and we’d had a good time debating whether Nikto or Metasploit was better for finding web server vulnerabilities, but nothing special enough to pull me away from my job as a network analyst. Besides, he hardly ever showed up at the smaller conventions, arriving only for the biggest and flashiest events.

That wasn’t surprising, since David was known for being erratic — not brilliant, just erratic. He’d show up late to the costume parties, whizzing in on his steampunked-out Segway, his hands still stained with grease from one of his crazy projects. He maintained webFAQs on everything from modern trebuchet design to bot battles, and knew almost as much as I did about refurbishing old pinball machines.

But it was his annual unlicensed fireworks display out on his three-acre farm that cemented his place in our local nerd pantheon. It was rumored he bribed the cops. I believed it, after the year he set a power transformer on fire.

My friends, naturally, tried to set us up on dates. “You’re spending your nights laying fiberoptic cable, Barbara – where’s the romance in that?”

“You’d be surprised how much love I can find in a flawlessly-performing, X-25 frame-relay WAN,” I said.

“But David is really sweet,” they protested. But ‘Sweet’ was the code phrase for ’will imprint on you like a crazed duckling after a single date,’ and I’d done the ’try to shake a nerd off my shoe’ dance one too many times. Since I knew his crazy schedule would conflict with my crazy schedule, I never followed up.

So it was a surprise when he asked me out for coffee.

“How did you get my number?” I stammered.

“Angie gave it to me.” His voice was different. The few exchanges I’d had with David were light and flirty, like some old Katharine Hepburn movie, and I’d liked that… But now, I could practically smell the flopsweat on his breath.

“I have to talk to you,” he said, forcing a stale laugh to let me know that ha ha, this is nothing serious. “Today.”

You shouldn’t do this, I thought, tapping the address into my GPS. But my Mom always told me to follow the excitement, saying that in the worst case, it’d make a funny story afterwards. Which is why, two hours later, I waited at a twee little coffee shop with rows of coffee mugs that looked like cartoon mice.

And for once, David was on time; he just wasn’t entering the building.

He paced back and forth on the other side of the street in little looping patterns, occasionally taking a tentative step towards the door and then drawing up short with a shudder. He was talking to himself loud enough that people perked up their heads as they walked by, wondering if he had a cell phone or was just crazy.

All the while, his hands pushed sweat through his hair, mashing that wiry Jewfro into a comical clown wig.

I thought about fetching him. But secretly, I like watching train wrecks. I read all the celebrity gossip feeds, and I don’t mind telling you that I took a sincere pleasure when Brad and Jennifer split up. But after watching David pace for ten minutes, I started to think that this was something beyond the usual local psychodrama. Meth, maybe. Schizophrenia.

The look he gave me when he finally entered the shop sent me scurrying for cover. At the back of everyone’s eyes is a little gauge that tells you how much in love with you they are… and David’s eyes were overclocked. At some point, he’d decided he was massively head-over-heels for me; this meeting wasn’t about him.

It was about us.

“You’re here,” I said, quietly thumbing the button on my phone that faked an emergency text. “It’s good to…”

David leapt over at me to grab my phone, then released it instantly, as if he’d laid his hand upon a hot stove. Then he covered his eyes, like a psychic doing a trick.

DDOS fraggle attack emanating from unknown source, pee ell ess call ASAP!” he recited, his voice cracking.

Every head in the shop turned just as my phone bleeped – and when I looked down, it said DDOS fraggle attack emanating from unknown source pls call ASAP.

“It’s fake, of course,” he said sadly. “I can’t blame you. Please. Listen.”

He plopped into the seat across from me, his hands rapidly oscillating back and forth so quickly they seemed to be trembling… But really, he was reaching out to touch me, and then pulling back. He looked like a junkie on the fourth day of going clean, and there was something so hopelessly distressed about him that my motherly comforting instincts kicked in.

“I don’t want to be here any more than you do,” he began.

“Did you break into my network?” I snarled. “Are you fucking with me?”

“I don’t — ” he said, then wiped the tears off his cheeks angrily with a grubby sleeve. “I have to tell you… things. To convince you. But I don’t want to embarrass you, Barbara.”

“Trust me. When it comes to security of my network, there’s nothing you can say to embarrass me.”

“You had your first big crush on Wallace when you were ten.”

I felt the shame of a boy pulling down my panties and braying laughter in my face.

“I don’t remember Wallace’s last name,” David continued. “But he had this shock of blonde hair that all of your friends said was the ginchiest. That word was really funny to you back then, but you didn’t know that it’s from 77 Sunset Strip, and one day you played doctor with Wallace out behind Sumner Middle School. You showed him yours — but he didn’t show you his. He said you were so ugly, he just wanted to see if he could get you to do it.”

He glanced down, noting how my hands were crossed defensively over my lap.

“That’s not true,” he assured me. “I’ve seen the pictures. You were beautiful.”

The look he gave me was so sympathetic it almost stopped me from dying of humiliation. He’d just casually revealed one of those tense little knots that people build entire personalities around – more than once, I’d considered the idea that I found myself dating men who were nervous and desperate and distinctly not like Wallace Kingsley, because one more rejection like that would have shattered me — and now that he’d dug it up, he met my terror with precisely the kind of sympathetic gaze I needed to see.

“You could have just stopped at his name,” I whispered, cupping my hands protectively around my espresso.

“You told me that one night after we’d had a big fight,” he said. I blinked, knowing that I’d never fought with him — hells, I barely knew him. “I forget what stupid thing I said  – all I know is that you bit my goddamned head off for making some silly comment about your dress, and then you started crying, and for some reason you told me about Wallace. That was the first time you told anybody.”

He looked me straight in the eyes, questioning. “At least I think it was the first time.”

“No,” I said, almost too stunned to speak. “That’s… No. It’s private.”

He was already charting the swells and falls of my moods, worried that he’d hurt me. How could I be simultaneously reassured and full-body creeped out? I wondered.

“And I especially didn’t tell you,” I said. “So how did you – “

“Barbara,” he said quietly. “We were married for five years. We— I— know you, and I didn’t want to bother you with this, but I couldn’t go through this alone…”

Now that my continued presence was assured, he broke down sobbing in the kind of long, slow jags you only get when you lose a loved one. I tore a napkin into pieces as he cried into his crossed arms. There was a motherly part of me that wanted to reassure him, and another part that already felt exhausted.

I leaned in, trying to talk softly so the curious baristasand the lunchtime crowd wouldn’t hear me:

“Are you telling me that I was… abducted? Has my memory been altered?”

“No,” he groaned. “I’m a time traveler, Barbara. I came back here, and now all I can think about is how good a life we’re supposed to have.”

#

At that point, wild unicorns couldn’t have dragged me back to my afternoon traffic analyses. I wasn’t sure whether I believed David, but I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything else until I’d heard him out.

He sat down and told me his story. As he did, his hands reached out and back in like a tide moving across the countertop, trying to hold my hand with a physical affection that I did not yet share.

“It was a casual time machine,” he informed me. “A side project.” He had a lot of projects at any given time. “Mom told me I was a stove with six burners and seven pots,” he said, then blinked surprise at my laugh.

“That’s right,” he said ruefully, chewing his bottom lip in a way I found strangely endearing. “You never heard that one before.”

In any case, our future-marriage slowed him down, but I was reassured to find that future-me still clocked in mondo overtime at the office. When he wasn’t snuggling me, he worked on his projects, or so he said.

“Time travel was – will be – all the rage,” he said. “The Martinez theory. That was the breakthrough that let physicists start to grasp the fundamentals of time.”

He couldn’t explain the Martinez theory in any way that made sense; I pressed him for details, but all he could offer were vague metaphors that fell apart when I poked at them.

“How could you come all the way back from– the future,” I said, still stumbling over the words, “And not bring back its greatest revelations?”

“Working on the machine gave me something to talk about at parties,” he admitted, blushing. “Everyone wants to hear about the ChronoCross 3000.”

Then he frowned.

“Until it works, I guess,” he said, giving his coffee a sullen glare. “Then you’re a fucking lunatic.”

But the ChronoCross 3000, as David called it, had a user interface error.

“When you break the boundaries of nature,” he complained, “you expect crackling thunderstorms! Blinding flares of light!”

“Where’s the earth-shattering kaboom?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he said, and when he reached out for my hands that time, it seemed somehow right to grasp back. Interlacing our fingers felt as natural as a key fitting into a lock.

He’d set up a door-sized tin ring in his garage, a potential portal laced with diodes. When he’d pulled the switch, nothing visible happened; the ChronoCross 3000 was as quiet and subtle as radiation. On the other side of  the ring was pretty much the same garage he’d had for the past decade, with one vital exception: on one side was 2018, the other side was 2009. He’d walked through to check the plug, then turned back to realize that his time machine was no longer there.

“There wasn’t even a tingle,” he said. “I was just… back.”

I was so into his tale that our foreheads were practically touching; I pulled back with a jerk. I remembered how my Mom had worked in psychiatric wards. She’d come home every night, looking worn thin, asking me, “The FBI isn’t poisoning the water with chlorophyll, right?”

She was doubting herself, she told me, because real loonies don’t give you friendly winks to tell you it’s just for fun. They believe every word they say, just like everyone else. The problem with craziness is…

“Craziness is infectious,” David said, finishing my thought in a passable imitation of my mother’s Southern accent, and I shuddered all over again.

“So how long have you been here?” I asked.

“Since yesterday,” he said… And if I had known David half as well as he knew me, I would have realized just how badly he was lying.

#

What followed that afternoon was a lot of ground-covering. Could he rebuild the time machine? Maybe, was the answer. A lot of the research hasn’t been done yet. What kind of life did we have? Good, he said, then frowned in what I was rapidly coming to think of as his ’I’m trying to be honest’ face. It was good for me, at least; I think it was good for you. If you had complaints, you didn’t share them.

“Oh!” he said, brightening. “I do have proof. Now that I think about it…”

He reached into his pocket to take out a single piece of broad, flat onyx, which I thought was a paperweight until raised bumps rose to the surface and formed a keyboard. He tapped a key and shimmering letters spiraled across it like ripples on a pond: “SIGNAL NOT FOUND.”

“Keep trying, little iBerry,” he chuckled fondly. “That signal won’t broadcast until 2016.”

“Can I have that?” I asked.

Now my hands were getting grabby. He pushed it back into his pocket.

“I want to be the one who reverse-engineers this,” he said. “You know how much those patents are worth. But you can help, if you like.”

“Is that wise?” I asked. “Changing the future like that?”

“I already have,” he shrugged, taking a bite out of a stale cruller. “Martinez would know where the old me went, but all I know is that the 2009 David is nowhere to be found.” He scratched the back of his neck, looking suddenly miserable again. “I hate to think I made my original self wink out of existence when I came back, but it’s a possibility. Me? I kind of like to think that somewhere, nine years in the future, you’re informing a stunned younger me about all sorts of sordid details.”

I couldn’t hide my grin.

“Look,” he said, laying all of his cards on the table. “You’re busy. You hate dating. I hate dating. And this is… well, it’s weird, I know that. But I also know we can be great for each other. I have… Well, I don’t have evidence, but it happened. You need to date me — ”

“Don’t — ”

“Okay, I forgot you hate to be cornered. You don’t have to date me. But you’ve spent years dating the wrong guys, and I can tell you — we found it. Together. You made me a better person, and I helped you through some shit — trust me, Wallace was just the tip of the iceberg. You’re a lot lonelier than you let on. You told me that yourself.”

He scribbled something on a napkin and stood up.

“That’s my number,” he said. “If you don’t call, you’ll never see me again.”

And with that, he walked out.

#

Our first get-togethers were legendarily awkward. David was all over me like cling-wrap, constantly probing to see whether I had fallen madly in love simply by the virtue of sitting next to him. I had to remind him firmly that I did not know him, and rather than attempting to reboot a future existence from some imaginary starting point that I had never witnessed, he should probably just try to have a good time with me now.

“Right,” he said, a little hangdog but smiling. “That’s so like you.”

“And you can stop saying things like that.”

“Right.”

To give David credit, he did learn. After that, he brought me to places he knew I’d just love… which he meant quite literally. He showed me movies that I instantly adored, took me out to fantastic restaurants in weird places in the abandoned corners of town.

Occasionally, we’d wind up parked in front of a dry cleaner’s. “Right,” he’d say, blushing. “Well, there will be a restaurant here…”

“And it’ll be great,” I said, rolling my eyes in what was already becoming a comfortable in-joke.

I loved his whacky stories of run-ins with mall cops and exploding fake volcanoes, but hated how he glazed over when I told mine; sometimes he finished my punchlines for me. It felt uncomfortably like he was running errands by listening to my reruns.

Then there were the all-too-brief fights, where he’d make a brutally honest, cruelly accurate comment about how I used work as an excuse for not having real friends… and when I flared with anger, he’d always back off apologetically.

“Right, you’re not ready for that,” he said, holding out his hands in a gesture of peace. “We worked past those issues once. We’ll get there again.”

But nasty as the fights were, they were over instantly; he knew exactly what buttons to press to cheer me up, too. And even though I still worked twelve-hour days optimizing Cisco routers, I drove two hours out to visit him on the farm, pretending it was just a stop on the way back to my apartment.

Sometimes, I wondered whether he was not a time traveler, but a telepath. I kept thinking words at him – Are you reading my mind, David? But he never responded. He was usually too busy hot-gluing gold piping to his steampunk suit.

Three weeks later we made love, and it was only then that I saw his body for what it was; all of our friends, who were thrilled to see us together, informed me that David was twenty-five. But when he removed his shirt his chest hair was already going gray, and his fleshless belly had begun to wrinkle.

The lovemaking was mind-blowing… for me, anyway. David knew precisely where to touch me to make me squirm, and oh how the orgasms flowed. I was intoxicated by the fresh scent of a new body after such a long dry spell… but my eagerness was met with a curious indifference. I was old habit to him, and even though he enjoyed himself with a satisfied grunt, he was still eating a meal he’d had a thousand times over before.

When it was done, he fell into a deep sleep. I wished I could join him; my head buzzed with uncomfortable thoughts.

#

It wasn’t hard, moving in with David. I was spending all my time at his house anyway, and after a long shift at work, it was nice snuggling up against my boyfriend to a home-cooked meal and some Bittorrented Doctor Whos.

Living together wasn’t quite the bliss he’d promised, but he was funny and never bugged me about my erratic working hours like my past boyfriends. He had a sixth sense about my moods, and whenever I was pissed off about the stupid politics I endured at work, he’d have flowers and a backrub ready.

His kindness was delightful – but it came attached with expectations. Something as simple as coming home a few hours late without calling would send him into a shrieking fury.

“Christ, you know how paranoid I get!” he’d say. “I’ve been worried sick, thinking you were dead in a ditch – is a single call too much to ask? I know it’s stupid, but Barbara understood how much this mattered to me!”

I’m Barbara,” I’d protest.

“No,” he’d say spitefully. “You were Barbara. Now you’re raw materials.”

I’d storm out of the house, furious – then stumble to a halt in the field outside his home as I realized I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to. I had friends I could call – but what would I say? ’I’m angry because I’m not as sensitive as my imaginary future self will be’?

David would slink out, head down, to apologize, but the damage was done. By way of mending, he’d explain to me all the ways in which the future Barbara would be better than this stiff collection of neuroses that stood before him now.

The comparisons were corroding my self-esteem, and he knew it, which made him feel terrible. But he didn’t know what else to do. My mother, that eternal font of folk wisdom, had once told me that couples were like two rocks grinding up against each other, the sharp edges fading into smooth curves that interlocked. To him, I was all jagged spikes of emotion, filled with fears and angers that had long been settled in some alternate history; it must have been like having to fight an old war all over again.

To me? It was like picking my way through a field of daisies studded with buried mines. Ninety-five percent of the time, he was the perfect boyfriend, full of love and beauty… but the harsh rage of that five percent poisoned everything else.

Frustrated, he’d retreat to his garage to work on the ChronoCross 3000. But he was trying to reassemble something he had barely understood then, using parts that weren’t quite the same as the ones he’d had access to nine years from now. Occasionally I’d hear him flinging hammers against the wall and shrieking in rage, and then he’d cry for hours.

The iBerry lay on his workbench, untouched.

My presence only seemed to make things worse, so I took up gardening; any project that got me out of the house. My hands grew black as I dug up beds of long-dead flowers.

It didn’t help that we’d become shut-ins; David had a hard time talking to people, and it was getting harder to make excuses for him. He’d keep discussing books that weren’t due out for years, drop references to our next President. Once, he was introduced to someone’s boyfriend, who she said without irony was ’the best thing that ever happened to her,’ and he clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a keening laugh.

And it was months before I noticed how David steered us away from Angie, the woman who’d initially given him my phone number. When I confronted him, he denied it — but I had known him long enough to recognize his guilty start. I couldn’t think of a reason he’d avoid Angie, so sweet and harmless… until one night I realized that I didn’t know what our future marriage was like.

Had he been unfaithful? I asked, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed right. He told me our future life together was glorious, and maybe it was, but… I was only hearing one side of it.

The swirls of possibilities were driving me crazy.

I was in the box. He knew where we were going, and I didn’t, which left me rudderless and stupid. Aside from comparisons to Glorious Future Barbara, he never told me what our actual marriage was like aside from brief hints.

“I don’t want to ruin it,” he’d say glumly. “I spend too much time already trying to recreate something that’s never going to exist.” But I suspected — though, maddeningly, I could never prove — that our future-life together wasn’t quite as idyllic as he let on.

It wasn’t until I found him dead that I realized how bad it had gotten.

#

David’s body was buried underneath two feet of humus in the southeast corner of his farm. I was trying to reform a spider-filled alcove into a nice little tulip bed when I felt the tip of the shovel catch on something hard and grooved. A sickening smell of decay wafted up, shimmering in the summer heat, and I clapped a hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t throw up.

At first I thought it was some old pet that pre-David had buried and post-David had forgotten about. But what I scooped out of the loamy mess were very large, sticky, and human bones – mostly rotted flesh, but just enough was left of David’s face to be recognizable.

Despite the violence of the gunshot, David looked like he was sleeping – a gentler, kinder version of the man I knew. I kissed my fingertips, placed them against the liquescent remains of his lips; the closest we’d ever come to kissing.

Post-David was away getting some equipment, but I knew where he kept the shotgun. Shivering, I retrieved it, made sure it was fully loaded, and sat on the stairs with the barrel pointed at the doorway.

#

I took it as a compliment that David reacted first to the look of haggard distress on my face, and then noticed the gun.

“How bad was our marriage, David?” I asked, feeling the weight of the wooden stock in my arms.

He sagged, caving instantly. “You found him. I should have steered you away from gardening. I knew there was the possibility, but I couldn’t — ”

“You know,” I said softly, “It might occur to you that our relationship has gotten bad enough that I have to hold a gun on you to get the truth, David. So maybe it’s time you tell me just how bad our future was.”

“It was perfect!” he spat, taking an angry step towards me; he backed off as I put pressure on the trigger. “It was so perfect that I couldn’t bear to be without it, all right?”

“That’s stupid,” I said. My hands were shaking.

You’re stupid,” he said, then immediately regretted it. He shoved his hands through his hair, trying to find the right words — words that could set everything back to normal again.

“You’re not stupid,” he said, starting to tear up. “You’re smart. Smarter than me. I just– I just wanted…”

“Tell me what really happened,” I said. And it was strange, looking at my lover’s murderer and feeling so sorry for him.

“I came back the day before we met,” he admitted, slumping back against the wall. “I didn’t lie, Barbara — We were happy. Deliriously so.

“But those first two years of marriage? A living hell. You think this is bad? Hell, your old me and I teetered on the brink of divorce for eighteen months before we finally pulled out of the slump. After that, it was the most beautiful, supportive, loving relationship you could imagine…”

“I’m a little tired of hearing how great she is,” I said.

“And I did stumble back through time without knowing. But I didn’t realize what had happened until I saw myself.

“There I was, in the kitchen, drinking orange juice – young, nine years full of love ahead of him, the inheritor of everything I’d just lost. I fled out to the fields before he could see me.

“I walked away from the house, headed towards the freeway. It was cold, and all I had was the stuff in my pockets. I’d have to walk miles, then scrub dishes to save up for a fake ID. But he? He had everything. He had my fireworks equipment, my Battlebot parts – and you in his future.

“I got jealous.”

I laughed, surprised at the bitterness in my voice. “Of yourself?”

His whole body quivered with love as he flung out his arms towards me like a man proposing marriage before a vast crowd of onlookers. “I’d never hold you again, Barbara! I couldn’t live with that. That’s how good it was for us – I was willing to murder myself to have you. We were that happy.”

“You blew your goddamned brains out with this,” I said, waggling the barrel at him.

“I should have stopped me,” he mewled, clawing at his face.

“You stole my future, David. You shot a man I was supposed to love and gave me this… this wreckage.”

“I thought I had a safety point! You think it was easy, resting the barrel against my own skull, watching the pre-me sleep in his bed? I was waiting for me-cubed to show up and tell me no, this is a bad idea. But he never came. And I pulled the trigger.”

“Why not?” I laughed. “If you were wrong, you’d just build the machine and go back, right?”

He slumped. “That was my plan, yeah.”

“You broke the loop,” I said. “Time’s not one whole object; you just proved the theory of parallel dimensions. Congratulations.”

“It’s not over, though,” he said, and the fawning eagerness in his face sickened me. “Yeah, I mean, that timeline is gone, but… You know I’m good for you, right? Mostly. I can change again, just like I changed back then. You know in your heart we’re meant to be…”

“You’re a murderer, David,” I said flatly, and shot him through the heart.

The irony was not lost upon me.

#

Pulling the trigger was a mistake, I know, but it was surprisingly easy. It felt like shooting an echo, a strange crime – half a suicide, a third of an act of euthanasia, a weird retro-abortion.

I understood now why he’d found it so easy to kill himself. The other versions? They just weren’t real. Though they were surprisingly messy when blood splattered against plaster, which is when I started to realize how badly I’d screwed up.

Both Davids were gone now. The David I’d known had been driven half-mad by his attempts to recreate the future – but even a crazy David had still given me moments of genuine happiness, fleeting glimpses of a beautiful relationship that no other man had come close to providing. And now that all possibility of any David had been erased, leaving me staring into the face of a deflated and loveless future, I understood why he’d shot himself.

In a weird way, killing him was what finally brought us together.

There are two bodies in the back yard, two dead timelines rotting quietly side by side. Strange thing is, I love them both. I love the idea that pre-David and I might have become something grand, and I love the idea that post-David and I can work together to build a brighter future for a Barbara and a David that, God willing, neither of us will ever meet.

The prototype of the ChronoCross is still in the basement. I don’t have access to the scientific journals that he did, but on the other hand I was always smarter than either David; in the end, even he knew that. If David was an under-the-hood kinda guy, he would have checked the cache on his iBerry – and if he had, he would have discovered that some of the videos he’d browsed about the Martinez theory were still there, waiting to be replayed.

Both Davids failed, as did I – but if I get this right, then I can walk back in time to that empty half-hour when post-David waited for the alternate future him to arrive. Except the person he’ll see will be me, and I’ll tell him what might have been, and I’ll usher him away to a place where we can try to negotiate some not-quite-as-happy version of our own relationship, leaving some alternate me — pre-pre-me, perhaps — to live in a well-negotiated bliss with pre-David.

It’s a tough tangle, but I’m good with systems. I can solve this. I can make this all better.

Just give me time.

5 Comments

  1. Scott Van Essen
    Aug 1, 2011

    That was FRAKKING BRILLIANT!!!!

    I loved it. My favorite of your stores yet.

  2. Dad
    Aug 1, 2011

    Great story! So much of you and Gini in it!

    Much love and hugs,

    Dad

  3. Sophia
    Aug 2, 2011

    …wow. This story is really powerful, and very well constructed. And the ending is just right.

  4. cyan_blue
    Aug 2, 2011

    Awesome 🙂

  5. Ken Roberts
    Nov 24, 2011

    Great story! Keep on writing them!
    -a new fan

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